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The enigmatic allure of reality TV

Monday 8th January

big_brother_8-eye-large-2-nCast your mind back, if you will, to 1999. She’s The One by Robbie Williams is #1. Pierce Brosnan is still James Bond. Tony Blair is still popular. In the Bognor Regis branch of Woolworths, my Dad is buying me a copy of Pokemon Blue.

Stateside, a man called Josh Harris – inspired by The Truman Show – sets up cameras all around his house and live-streams his entire life, 24/7, on a website called weliveinpublic.com. A few months later, his girlfriend has left him, and he terminates the project due to the mental, personal and financial pressure it was causing him. A year or so later, the first series of Big Brother airs on British television.

A lot has changed in nineteen years, but our love for reality television has not. What is it that draws us back to watching people eat, sleep and slag each other off? Big Brother may not have the impact it once did, but I’m a Celeb, The Only Way Is Essex and Love Island draw big ratings, notably from Generation Y who are often accused of paying more attention to their phones and not the television screen.

I’m hesitant to claim that viewers are drawn in by the ‘authenticity’ of these programmes – in fact, its common knowledge that many of our favourite reality shows are heavily scripted for maximum cat fights and emotional moments. Even Big Brother has a rigorous audition process that hand-picks contestants who they know will cause a stir.

I also wouldn’t pin it on a desire to watch normal people go about their everyday lives. Thanks to the likes of Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, many people practice their own personal episode of Black Mirror on a daily basis. Celebrities, friends, family and your ex’s sister’s new boyfriend can all be watched as they party, work out and even eat. Short of building our own Panopticon, there’s very little that reality television can give us which we don’t already have in the palms of our hands.

So where does that leave Say Yes To The Dress? Well, in essence it’s still a television programme, with all the conventions of one, just like LOST. And, like LOST, there is a suspension of disbelief that is required to really enjoy it the way it’s supposed to be enjoyed. Is that so terrible? Not for most audiences, especially young ones. In the same way they’ll entertain the notion that being bitten by a radioactive spider might give you arachnid-themed superpowers; most viewers will accept that the juiciest scenes in Made in Chelsea are put together using purposeful misinformation and well-timed entrances. Some might argue that this makes it even more fun to watch. The added layer of understanding the mechanics – much like post-match punditry – is part and parcel of the enjoyment of reality television.

So it looks like the genre is going to stick around, at least for the foreseeable future, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying it. There are thousands of us all over the UK, tuning in secretly on a Sunday night. I for one can’t wait for the next series of Love Island. Or the new Pokemon game.

Article Written by

Megan Morgan

Broadcast Assistant, Total Media

This is Megan's first job in the media industry. Her favourite part of the role is learning about technical innovations in broadcast. Megan holds a BA in Media Studies from the University of Brighton

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